On cognitive primes, attack ads, rats – and Joe Biden


This is not a politically motivated piece. Everything outlined below goes in line with my PhD research at the University of Hamburg on political communications in a digital age and its effect on decision-making (and elections).

In 2006, Patrick Stewart and James Schubert issued a study on the effect of precognitive primes in political advertising. With their study, both authors were early explorers of the hypothetical ability to persuade voters through precognitive primes and hence subliminal messaging in multi-media. “Subliminals”, as Stewart and Schubert put it “may be presented as ‘precognitive’ stimuli in which images are presented so fast (less than thirty milliseconds) that an individual is not aware that he or she received such information, yet has processed it.” (Stewart and Schubert 2006, 104)

This was the case for a TV attack ad run by the RNC during the 2000 US presidential campaign that focused on Al Gore’s plan for subscription drugs for seniors. During the commercial, the narrator compared Al Gore’s policy-plans to those of George Bush. Towards the end of the clip, “the word ‘RATS’ appeared for a fraction of a second as the narrator claimed that ‘bureaucrats decide’. In separate experiments, researchers found that people who viewed the subliminal ‘RATS’ ad were less likely to trust Democrats to protect Medicare and less likely to support Gore than those who saw the ad without the ‘RATS’ prime.” (Crigler et al. 2018, 8)

Screenshot from the 2000 attack ad “RATS”

Hence, the authors claimed a potentially persuasive effect by activating a negative cognitive prime associated with the word “RATS” and concluded: “Should this research find significant effects from subliminals, there will be a need to develop policies concerning their use. Perhaps this need is best put by Watanabe et al. (2001), publishing in the science journal Nature:

‘When we are bombarded by unimportant information we hope that by consciously ignoring it, we will escape its effects. This belief now seems unwarranted. The brain seems to equate frequency with ecological importance, and even though this may once have been a good strategy, it may be less adaptive in the context of our manipulative, modern-day media. (p.847)’” (Stewart and Schubert 2006, 109).

What is important to note here is the following: Stewart and Schubert published their study on the 2000 election in 2006, the quote from Watanabe et al. on potential cognitive effects from over-mediatisation dates back to 2001. This was before we had web 2.0, before social media, and, most notably before the triumph of the smartphone. So, if potential persuasive effects from precognitive priming were apparent and existent when conveyed through linear TV, how big of an effect could a large scale, strategic deployment of precognitive primes and subliminal messaging unfold nowadays?

Now, fast forward to 2019. 

On April 24th, former vice president Joe Biden announced his candidacy for the upcoming presidential elections. The campaign started off with a YouTube/TV-spot that introduced the motivation of the candidate. Making use of powerful storytelling, the spots narrative connects Charlottesville from its role during the founding years of American constitutionalism to the Charlottesville car attack in August 2017. In the wake of the “Unite the Right”-Rally, a young woman was killed by a white supremacist. 19 people were injured. Quote Mr. Biden:

“And that’s when we heard the words of the President of the United States, that stung the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were quote ‘Some very fine people on both sides’ – Very fine people on both sides? With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalent between those spreading hate and those who have the courage to stand against it. And in that moment I knew the thread to this nation was unlike any I have seen in my lifetime.”
[01:13 – 01:48]

America is at stake

The spin is powerful as it sets the baseline for a core narrative that unfolds in the second half of the clip, namely that four more years for Donald Trump in the White House would substantially change American society and the character of the country. Quote Mr. Biden:

“The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America … America is at stake.”
[02:20 – 02:29]

There is something about this part in the ad that struck my attention. There is a hick-up in the audio track. Listen closely: As if the needle of a turntable jumped off the record for a split second, there is a cut between “[…] everything that has made America” and “America is at stake”. If you listen closely there appears to be even a slight shift in the pitch of Mr. Bidens voice. A coincidence? A mistake in video-editing/producing? Maybe, but wouldn’t that be unlikely given the level of professionalism a corresponding presidential campaign is set-up and working?

Traces in the Tweet

In addition, one might notice the odd orthography in the corresponding Tweet that published the video to Twitter and started the campaign. It is strange to see how the orthography of the tweet correlates with the hiccup in the audio track of the commercial:

Screenshot from @JoeBiden Twitter-Account, taken April 24th 2019

It is strange to see how the orthography of the tweet correlates with the hiccup in the audio track of the commercial. If the audio-hiccup is not a mistake – and the corresponding orthography makes this unlikely – then the hiccup was set in place on purpose. Given the potential of subliminals as outlined by Stewart and Schubert (2006), the strategic rationale for the campaign could be the activation of a (republican) precognitive prime targeted at non- and swing-voters. Here is how:

The half-sentence “[…] everything that has made America” before the interrupting “[…] America is at stake” resembles in orthography and narrative a very popular claim that persuaded many voters during the past presidential elections: Make America Great Again.

This resemblance triggers anticipation of emotions connoted with the claim. For those, who feel positively connected to the MAGA-claim, the prime could increase the likelihood of conception for the (patriotic) narrative that follows: “America is at stake”.  The hiccup in the audio track raises the chances that the claim and its narrative are realized.

Even if recipients are not anticipating a reference to “Make America Great Again”, there is a good chance that the hiccup will furthermore lead recipients to rewind the video. By assessing whether or not the hiccup is a technical flaw, recipients will listen to the narrative of “America is at stake” repeatedly.

A narrative, that in itself could appeal to swing-voters who voted republican for patriotic (or whatever) reason in 2016. A corresponding campaign-strategy then would embrace communicative concepts that transmit rather republican sentiments, which could work as a bait for (conservative) swing- or non-voters.

These are – if at all – educated guesses. However, given the potential of precognitive priming in a smartphone-centred digital media-landscape, I believe it is not unlikely that the Biden clip could be a leap towards cognitive campaign-strategies in the upcoming electoral race.


Stewart and Schubert (2006).Taking the “Low Road” with subliminal Advertisements: A Study Testing the Effect of Precognitive Prime “RATS” in a 2000 Presidential Advertisement, in: the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, October 2006. DOI: 10.1177/1081180X06293938

Crigler, Ann N., Hevron, Parker R. (2018). Affect and Political Choice, in: The Oxford Handbook of Political Communication, Oxford 2018, DOI: 10.1093/osfordhb/9780199793471.013.66

Watanabe, Takeo, Jose E. Nanez, and Yuka Sasaki. 2001. “Perceptual Learning without Perception.” Nature 413: 844-48.

On cognitive primes, attack ads, rats – and Joe Biden

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